Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper faces two highly unpalatable choices after opposition parties signed an unprecedented deal on Monday to bring down his minority Conservative government.
The opposition, which says Harper is not doing enough to tackle the financial crisis, has its eyes set on a confidence motion due for a vote in parliament next Monday.
The Liberal Party of Canada, New Democrats and separatist Bloc Quebecois signed a formal agreement designed to keep them in power until June 30, 2010. They promised a major stimulus package as well as help for the struggling auto industry.
Harper, facing the worst crisis since winning power in January 2006, could temporarily suspend parliament until a budget the government has promised for Jan. 27.
Or he could let the confidence vote go ahead and run a big risk of losing.
CTV television quoted Harper as telling a private meeting of Conservatives on Monday evening that he would take every legal option possible to stop what he called an “affront to Canadian democracy.”
Harper won a strengthened minority in an Oct. 14 election and says he should be allowed to govern.
To suspend parliament, Harper would have to approach Governor-General Michaelle Jean — the personal representative of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, Canada’s head of state.
Allan Tupper, a professor of politics at the University of British Columbia, said a suspension would be unjustified.
“It would be seen solely as a bid to escape the House of Commons [elected chamber]. I don’t see an upside to that ... the government would be severely weakened,” he told reporters.
The three opposition parties are also angry that Harper last week tried to eliminate public financing for political parties, a move that would hit them particularly hard.
Harper is upset that the coalition would have to rely on the Bloc Quebecois, which wants to break up Canada.
The opposition parties said the new prime minister would be Liberal leader Stephane Dion, who led his party to such a bad defeat on Oct. 14 that he has promised to step down once members choose a replacement in May.
“We are ready to form a new government,” Dion told a press conference on Monday. “This will be a Liberal-led government in collaboration with the New Democratic Party and with the support of the Bloc Quebecois.”
If the confidence vote goes ahead and Harper loses, he would then have to go to Jean and tell her he no longer has the confidence of parliament. He would most likely ask her to call new elections, but constitutional experts said she could well turn to the opposition first.
This scenario has only occurred once in Canada before, during World War I in 1917.
Harper characterized the power grab as “undemocratic” and said it required Dion to “do a deal with the separatists in order to get the power the voters denied him at the ballot box.”
“He’s about to play the biggest political game in Canadian history,” Harper told parliament.
“We are going through an unprecedented economic crisis,” Dion countered.